Historian and Ex-National Security Council Member Roger Morris: Defense Secretary Robert Gates Dealing with Blowback from Policies He Directed at CIA

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Award-winning historian and investigative journalist Roger Morris has just published the final chapter of an exhaustive three-part series on Robert Gates and the CIA. Morris writes that to appreciate who Gates was “is to retrace much of the shrouded side of American foreign policy and intelligence for the last half-century or more.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yesterday, we looked at the close to 700 pages of documents the CIA declassified that details some of its most infamous and illegal operations from the 1950s to the 1970s. Those are the years when current Defense Secretary Robert Gates was first entering the CIA. He went on to serve as the agency’s director under President Bush Sr.

Award-winning historian and investigative journalist Roger Morris has just published a final chapter in an exhaustive three-part series on Robert Gates and the CIA. Morris writes that to appreciate who Gates was “is to retrace much of the shrouded side of American foreign policy and intelligence for the last half-century or more.”

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Morris was a member of the National Security Council under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, but resigned in protest over the invasion of Cambodia. He is the author of the bestselling biographies of Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the Clintons. His new three-part series on Robert Gates is called “The Specialist.” It’s up at TomDispatch.com. Roger Morris joins us now from Seattle, Washington. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Roger Morris.

ROGER MORRIS: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you lay out Bob Gates’s career and put it in light of, well, this latest news this week, the “family jewels” that have been released by the CIA, the close to 700 pages of documents that the National Security Archives had applied for 15 years ago?

ROGER MORRIS: Bob Gates is really emblematic of the modern CIA. He joins it in 1968, just a day before the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. And, of course, he rises very quickly. In less than six years, he’s on the National Security Council staff, at the closing weeks of Richard Nixon’s presidency and then on into Gerald Ford. And he stays on at the NSC under Jimmy Carter for the first three years of the Carter administration, goes back to the CIA and then serves under Bill Casey, the notorious director there under Ronald Reagan, continues on, is nominated when Casey falls ill fatally of a brain tumor, is nominated as director himself in 1987. He is rejected at that point. He withdraws his nomination, goes back to the CIA, back again under George H.W. Bush to the National Security Council as deputy director, and then returns, nominated to be director of the CIA in 1991, serves out the last year of the Bush administration and into the first months of the Clinton administration. So this is an everyman of foreign policy who has seen it all, has spent much of his time at the very top of the CIA or in the White House itself, at the top of the NSC. So he is quite representative of the continuing disaster in American foreign policy, covert and overt, since the 1970s.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, the period under Bob Casey was the period when the CIA was involved in some of its most notorious covert operations. Can you talk a little bit about Gates’s role during that period?

ROGER MORRIS: Well, Gates is Casey’s favorite in the agency. One source told me it was love at first sight. Gates was a dyed-in-the-wool Cold Warrior, as was Casey, a prominent Catholic layman and a fanatic, really, about the Soviets, told people that he was coming to the CIA to wage war on the Soviet Union.

But I think it’s important to remember that Bill Casey and Ronald Reagan and all of their notorious secret wars, as I point out in the piece, only continued the secret wars that had begun under Jimmy Carter. This real history is a seamless web, it’s a continuous thread between Democrats and Republicans alike. It’s Jimmy Carter who begins the interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Afghanistan, all over the world.

Bill Casey picks it up, of course, in a particularly bloody way. Gates is his executive assistant for awhile, then appointed the deputy director for intelligence for the analysis side of the agency, and then in 1986 becomes full-fledged deputy director, the number two man at the CIA. This was a middle manager in 1979-1980, when Bill Casey first appears at the agency with Ronald Reagan’s election, and he’s catapulted to the top so that he’s very much Casey’s boy.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about him as a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure. Explain, Roger Morris.

ROGER MORRIS: Well, he’s Dr. Jekyll in the sense that he’s the all-American boy. I dealt briefly with his boyhood in Wichita, Kansas. He’s the model all-American student. He goes off to William and Mary College and compiles an admirable record there. He is given awards for his public service and humanitarian devotion. He goes off and gets a master’s degree then at the University of Indiana and is recruited by the CIA there. He seems to represent, up to the time that he enters the agency, everything that America celebrated, of course, in the Cold War period as being the all-American kid. He goes to church. He’s a Boy Scout, an Eagle Scout. And the irony, I think — part of the irony of this story is that when the Eagle Scout becomes a spymaster, becomes a bureaucrat of the covert, he is capable of approving and urging some of the most savage acts in American foreign policy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your perspective in terms of what his ascension now as secretary of defense means in terms of any substantive changes in the current administration policy, or what his returning now to this key position means, in terms of the strategic direction of the Republican Party at this time?

ROGER MORRIS: Well, he’s a master bureaucrat, and as we’ve seen, he has tried to distinguish himself very early and very plainly from Don Rumsfeld. He’s replaced most of the senior Rumsfeld commanders with his own selections from the military bureaucracy. He has tried to carve out his own rhetoric, his own public position in contrast to the rather flinty edge of the Rumsfeld era. He has, I think, every intention of becoming a player in this administration, even if it pits him against his old ally, his old friend Dick Cheney. They have a long history going back together, as did he have a history with Rumsfeld.

But I’m not sure in the 18 months left in the Bush administration he can do very much about the incredibly serious, the profound problems facing the Pentagon. The American military is in an unprecedented crisis, unlike any in its history — demoralization, disarray and, of course, the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I think his reach will be limited. There are many who feel that we’ll be lucky if he simply prevents some kind of madness in the bombing of Iran. If he can prevent that from happening, I think people will see his tenure as a success.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about his impact on the CIA itself, because obviously the agency went through enormous demoralization itself as a result of the neocons within the administration? And he has obviously deep ties to that agency. His coming to power in the Defense Department mean any sort of reassertion of the CIA’s influence?

ROGER MORRIS: Well, I think one of the first things he did was to try to scale back some of the poaching on CIA territory the Pentagon had been doing. They have a far-flung intelligence operation, as you know, mercenaries out there doing all sorts of things that the agency used to do and that the agency still does. So you’ve got a raging competition there, and I think Gates tried to bring that somewhat under control.

His own tenure at the CIA was virtually meaningless in terms of any fundamental change in the culture of that bureaucracy. He instituted a lot of study groups and committees when he became director. But by that time the rank and file were so familiar with his compromise under Casey, so familiar with how much he had slanted intelligence, how much he had corrupted the whole process, that no one was really listening, as several sources told me.

You know, his nomination in 1991 to be CIA director was the occasion of an unprecedented public rebellion by CIA analysts and officers who trooped to Capitol Hill to testify against him, against his confirmation, on the grounds of how much he had corrupted the intelligence analytical process. That was really totally unprecedented in the history of the CIA. He got 33 votes against his confirmation, even as he was confirmed, again an unprecedented number.

His record at the CIA was disgraceful in almost every respect, intellectually as well as administratively. I don’t think he has any friends or admirers over there. I think that his tenure at the Pentagon at this point is problematic. You know, we view all of these new people, any new people coming into the Bush administration, with kind of hopeful anticipation, because this regime is so absolutely rotten, so terrible, that almost anybody else looks good.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Morris, you write it’s almost as if he has come full circle, going back to the U.S. supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, actually luring the Soviet Union into Afghanistan to get it mired in its own Vietnam. Here you have Gates right through to today with the blowback with those very people trained by the United States now setting their sights on the United States, like Osama bin Laden.

ROGER MORRIS: It’s one of the great ironies. He faces, of course, the wreckage, the ruin, that’s been wrought by this administration, but he also faces much of the world that he was responsible for making. He was very instrumental with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Carter administration in the very earliest American covert interventions in Afghanistan, the creation of this atavistic fundamentalist force to fight the Soviets and to overturn a leftist regime in Kabul, which ironically we now know was in virtual revolt against the Soviets anyway. The invasion in December 1979 by the Soviet Union was provoked essentially by the United States. The Soviets were reluctant up to the very eleventh hour to do that. And the chaos that followed, a million-and-a-half Afghans dead, four million homeless and what the U.N. called migratory genocide, was all a result of events that had been triggered and provoked by covert action by the United States. And Gates was extremely instrumental.

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Morris, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you very much for being with us, award-winning historian, did the three-part series on Robert Gates and the CIA, published at TomDispatch.com.

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